Promotion of GMO-Derived Impossible Burger at World’s Largest Natural Food Trade Show Denounced as Deceptive
Natural food industry representatives and consumer advocates denounced Impossible Foods, maker of the GMO-derived Impossible Burger, for promoting their product at Natural Products Expo West, saying they were engaging in deceptive marketing.
Impossible Foods served patties of their burger to attendees at the world's largest natural food trade show — but there was no mention that the product was genetically engineered at the company's exhibit booth or in their marketing literature.
"We're disappointed that the company is using a 'natural products' show to promote its certainly not-natural product," said Frank Lampe, vice president of communications and industry relations, for the United Natural Products Alliance. "The halo effect of being perceived as natural by its presence at the show does not serve the natural products industry or its consumers and is a disingenuous move by Impossible Foods."
"Hosting the Impossible Burger at Natural Products Expo West raises questions of deceptive marketing. Consumers believe 'natural' means that no artificial ingredients or genetically engineered ingredients were used," said Dana Pearls, senior food and technology policy campaigner at Friends of the Earth.
Jim Thomas, co-executive director of ETC Group, which tracks new genetic engineering technologies, said Impossible Foods exhibiting at Natural Products Expo West was "like inviting in an arms manufacturer to exhibit at a peace convention."
"What were the organizers of the world's leading natural and organic show thinking when they invited in such a controversial GMO company to peddle their misleading industrial fakery?" he asked. "What's next, a booth for Bayer to promote Roundup? Shall we just start calling it Expo Whatever?"
The Impossible Burger is one of several new plant-based — or in this case lab-created — meat products that provide the look and taste of meat while claiming to be more environmentally friendly than industrial meat production. The product is served in several thousand restaurants in the U.S., including chains like White Castle and The Cheesecake Factory (where it is falsely described as "natural" on the menu). Burger King recently announced it would test market the Impossible Burger in 60 restaurants in St. Louis.
But the Impossible Burger has been controversial because it is made using genetic engineering. The burger's key ingredient is called heme, which is produced using a genetically engineered yeast that is fermented and multiplied. The GMO-derived heme gives the Impossible Burger its meat-like taste and red blood-like color.
In 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration raised questions about the safety of the engineered heme after Impossible Foods applied for GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status. Despite FDA's concerns, Impossible Foods put its GMO burger on the market for public consumption in 2016 anyway. Impossible Foods later submitted results from short-term rat feeding studies to the FDA and, last year, the agency said that it had no more questions about heme's safety.
No Transparency About Impossible Burger's GMO Ingredient
Impossible Foods plans to introduce a retail version of the Impossible Burger this year, which is why they exhibited at Natural Products Expo West, according to Nick Halla, the company's chief strategy officer. He said that people at the show had been very receptive to the Impossible Burger.
But, Natural Products Expo West attendees didn't know they were eating a GMO product. Impossible Foods' exhibit booth and literature made no mention that the Impossible Burger's key ingredient, heme, is genetically engineered.
When asked why they weren't transparent about the burger being GMO, Halla said the recipe cards being given out wasn't appropriate literature for describing the genetic engineering process. But, a more detailed brochure at the booth also said nothing about GMO heme, only describing it as "magic ingredient found in all living things." Halla said Impossible Foods is transparent about its use of genetic engineering on its website.
But Lampe said Impossible Foods lack of transparency at Natural Products Expo West was unethical. "Impossible Foods is legally allowed to not provide that information to consumers. Legal? Yes. Responsible and ethical? I don't think so," Lampe commented.
GMO Products Allowed at Natural Products Expo West if They Don't Make "Natural" Claims
So, how did a GMO food company get into the world's biggest natural food trade show? According to the standards for exhibitors at Natural Products Expo West, a company can promote foods with GMO ingredients as long as they don't claim their products are natural.
"We don't rule out GMOs yet, because if we did we could have Natural Products Expo in my child's school gymnasium (because genetically engineered ingredients are so pervasive in the food supply)," said Michelle Zerbib, standards director at New Hope Network, which hosts Natural Products Expo West. "What we do with GMO products is that we don't allow them to market as natural, 100 percent natural or any natural claims," she said.
New Hope's ingredients standard for exhibitors requires the use of non-GMO yeast but only as a flavor enhancer. Impossible Foods uses a GMO yeast to make the Impossible Burger's key ingredient.
"There's a standard for (non-GMO) yeast but that's according to flavoring, not the product itself," Zerbib said.
Zerbib also admitted that New Hope Network doesn't have the staff or time to closely inspect each exhibitor's ingredients. "We just don't have the resources to do that," she said.
Lampe said it is difficult for New Hope to keep up with the growing number of products made using new genetic engineering technologies.
"Unfortunately, there are an increasing number of synbio ingredients and products already in the marketplace in foods and dietary supplements, and trying to determine show acceptance in light of the rapidly changing marketplace, with no mandated federal labeling for the new classes of GMO products and no testing protocols in place, is not an enviable task for the New Hope standards folks," Lampe said.
"This is Not Clean Food"
Could other companies that sell GMO products like the non-browning Arctic Apple or GMO salmon also exhibit at Natural Products Expo West if they don't make natural claims? Yes, said Zerbib.
But she also said it may be time for New Hope Network to look at revising their ingredient standard as new GMO products come to market.
"We probably need to revisit it maybe take another look because there have been a lot of different technologies that have come out since we incorporated our ingredients standard in 2009," she added.
Alan Lewis, director of government affairs and food and agriculture policy for Natural Grocers, said the natural food community needs to take a strong stand against new GMO products like the Impossible Burger.
"If we are going to apply the cautionary principle to every other suspect food ingredient, then certainly synthetic heme, grown in genetically modified cultures, qualifies for scrutiny. Novel molecules and unknown ingredients have never been embraced in natural food. What are we thinking? This is not clean food," said Lewis.
Ken Roseboro is editor and publisher of The Organic & Non-GMO Report, a monthly news magazine that focuses on threats posed by GM foods and the growing non-GMO food trend.
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By adopting three practices—no-till farming, cover crops and diverse crop rotations—farmers worldwide can help preserve the world's soils, feed a growing global population, mitigate climate change and protect the environment.
This was the key message of a presentation by David Montgomery, professor of geology at the University of Washington, at the Iowa Organic Conference in November.
Eroding Soil 20 Times Faster Than Building It
Montgomery, author of several books including his most recent, Growing a Revolution, began his talk by describing how the earth's soils are being degraded by agriculture and the catastrophic impacts that result.
"Humanity is losing 0.3 percent of our global food production each year to soil erosion and degradation and 30 percent every 100 years," he said, referring to a United Nations report on soil.
Montgomery said soil degradation and loss has been a problem since the beginning of agriculture and played a major role in the demise of past civilizations including Mesopotamia, classical Greece and ancient Rome. It also caused the downfall of the Piedmont region of the southeastern U.S. as a leading agricultural producer, which it had been in colonial America.
Montgomery said the "villain" in soil degradation is the plow and not deforestation.
"The invention of the plow fundamentally altered the balance between soil production and soil erosion, dramatically increasing erosion," he said. "Nature clothes herself in plants, and the invention of the plow left soil unprotected to erosion."
Based on a number of studies, Montgomery estimated that 1.54 millimeters (mm) of soil are lost each year worldwide, while only 0.01 to 0.02 mm are being built each year.
"We are eroding soil 20 times faster than we are building it," he said. "We've drawn down the batteries of farmlands. This is a global problem, and agriculture has to change."
Visited Farmers Worldwide Practicing Conservation Agriculture
Despite the potentially catastrophic consequences this problem presents, Montgomery said: "I'm very optimistic we can solve this problem and do it quickly and economically."
In the research for his book, Growing a Revolution, Montgomery traveled around the world visiting farms that are building soil and soil organic matter. The practices these farms had in common were no plowing or no-till, keeping the ground covered year round using cover crops, and growing diverse crop rotations to reduce weeds and insects. Together he calls the three practices "conservation agriculture."
"There was minimal or no disturbance to the soil, maintaining permanent ground cover and diverse crop rotations," Montgomery said of the farms he visited.
Conservation agricultural practices stimulate soil microbial activity, the "soil food web" as Montgomery describes it, to build fertile soils, which in turn produce healthy plants.
He visited Duane Beck, a conventional farmer in South Dakota, who has adopted all three practices. As a result, Beck has reduced the use of pesticides, diesel fuel, and synthetic fertilizer and increased crop yields.
Kofi Boa, a farmer in Ghana, who operates the No-Till Center, was able to stop soil erosion while tripling yields of corn and cowpea and reducing herbicide use.
David Brandt, a farmer in Carroll, Ohio has practiced no-till farming for 44 years. His farming costs are $320 per acre while his corn yields 180 bushels per acre. He also uses only 1 quart of Roundup herbicide per acre. By contrast, Brandt's neighbor plows his fields, pays expenses of $500 per acre, and uses five times as much Roundup. His corn produces yields of only 100 bushels per acre.
"David's secret is the soil," Montgomery said. "His soil is 8 percent organic matter."
Montgomery describes Brandt, who farms conventionally, as an "organicish" farmer.
"I would love to see conventional farmers move closer to organic but not organic farmers move to conventional practices," he said.
Another "organicish" farmer Montgomery visited was Gabe Brown in North Dakota, who has built a growing reputation as a leading advocate of "regenerative" farming. Brown also uses all three soil-building practices as well as grazing cattle.
Montgomery initially thought cattle were responsible for soil degradation but after visiting Brown's farm he said, "Cattle can be a tool of soil regeneration instead of degradation."
Brown's soil is 10 percent organic matter, according to Montgomery.
He also uses no insecticides and synthetic fertilizers and so little herbicide that Montgomery said he is "essentially an organic farmer."
"Soil Health as the New Foundation of Agriculture"
In summarizing, Montgomery said the keys to building soil are to "ditch the plow, cover up, and grow diversity."
The benefits of such conservation agriculture practices, according to Montgomery, are higher profits, comparable yields, less fossil fuel, fertilizer and pesticide use for the farmer, increased soil carbon and water retention and less pollution.
"Using agriculture to improve the land is a total game changer, but needs a different way of thinking," he said.
The need to build soil goes beyond the debate over conventional and organic farming methods. "It centers on a different perspective on how soil health works in both systems," Montgomery said. "It's about how to build soil and look at soil as an ecological system."
Montgomery sees soil health with its focus on building soil biology as the new agricultural revolution supplanting the green revolution and its focus on chemicals and biotechnology.
"We are poised to unleash the idea that soil health should be the newest foundation of agriculture," he said. "It can help us feed the world and mitigate climate change and environment degradation."
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
Of all the genetic engineers who have renounced the technology—Arpad Pusztai, Belinda Martineau, Thierry Vrain and John Fagan, among others—because of its shortsighted approach and ability to produce unintended and potentially toxic consequences, Caius Rommens' story may be the most compelling.
Rommens was director of research at Simplot Plant Sciences from 2000 to 2013 where he led development of the company's genetically engineered Innate potato. But over time, Rommens started to have serious doubts about his work and worried about potential health risks from eating the GMO potatoes, which are now sold in 4,000 supermarkets in the U.S.
Rommens' concerns about the GMO potato led him to write a book, Pandora's Potatoes, which was recently published. The book is a case study on how a scientist's initial enthusiasm about genetic engineering turns to doubt and fear as he realizes the hazards the technology can create.
I recently interviewed Caius Rommens about his work developing the GMO potato and the misgivings he now has about it.
Please describe your work developing GMO potatoes and your position at Simplot.
Caius Rommens: I left my position as team leader at Monsanto to start an independent biotech effort at Simplot. During the 12 years I worked there, I designed a genetically modified potato that I believed was resistant to bruise and late blight, and that could be used to produce French fries that were less colored and less carcinogenic than normal fries.
The main genetic engineering of the Simplot GMO potatoes as described in your book was silencing genes called RNAi. What are some of the possible negative consequences of silencing genes?
CR: Silencing is not gene-specific. Any gene with a similar structure to the silencing construct may be silenced as well. It is even possible that the silencing that takes place inside the GM potatoes affects the genes of animals eating these GM potatoes. I am most concerned about bees that don't eat GM potatoes but may use GM potato pollen to feed their larvae. Based on my assessment of the literature, it appears that the silencing constructs are active in pollen.
You say that silencing the PPO (polyphenol oxidase, a gene responsible for browning in potatoes) gene increases toxins that accumulate in the GMO potatoes. Why are these toxins produced and what effects could these toxins produce on human health?
CR: Ex-colleagues of mine had shown that PPO-silencing increases the levels of alpha-aminoadipate by about six-fold. Alpha-aminoadipate is a neurotoxin, and it can also react with sugars to produce advanced glycoxidation products implicated in a variety of diseases.
(A Monsanto GM corn variety, LY038, was found to have high concentrations of alpha-aminoadipate, and an application for its approval in Europe in 2009 was withdrawn after regulators raised safety questions.)
There is no data on the actual levels of alpha-aminoadipate in GM potatoes, but I believe that Simplot should carefully determine these levels.
Similarly, ex-colleagues had shown that the damaged and bruised tissues of potatoes may accumulate high levels of tyramine, another toxin. Such damaged tissues are normally identified and trimmed, but they are concealed, or partially concealed, and much of it is not trimmed in GM potatoes. Therefore, it seems important that Simplot should determine the full spectrum of possible tyramine levels in their GM potatoes.
Another potential toxin is chaconine-malonyl. There is little known about this compound, but ex-colleagues had shown that it is increased by almost 200 percent upon PPO-silencing. This should probably be investigated.
In your book you write that the GMO potatoes don't eliminate bruising but just conceal it. Please explain.
CR: PPO-silencing prevents the darkening of bruises. The suppression of symptoms is so effective that we believed we had overcome the bruise issue. It took me a lot of time to understand that GM potatoes still have bruises—invisible bruises—that are just as damaged as the darkening bruises of normal potatoes. In other words, the invisible bruises still are entry points for pathogens and exit points for water, which are two important issues during storage.
In addition to the claim of eliminating bruises, Simplot says the Innate potato provides "protection against late blight pathogen," and "reduced asparagine, which contributes to reduced acrylamide in cooked potatoes." What are your reactions to these claims?
CR: The GM potato does contain a resistance gene that provides protection against late blight. The problem is that nobody knows how long the protection will last. Plant breeders have tested many different resistance genes in the past, and these genes are almost always overcome by quickly evolving pathogens.
Another issue is that late blight is usually accompanied by other pathogens. In humid regions of the world where late blight is most active, there are dozens of other pathogens. So, growing GM potatoes with a single resistance gene in, for example, Bangladesh is like getting vaccinated for one tropical disease and then moving to the tropics where there are many other diseases.
Next, the reduced asparagine levels do lower the amount of acrylamide in French fries, but these levels are already very low in normal fries. Simplot argues that the reduced acrylamide levels reduce carcinogenicity, but I could not find any reliable studies demonstrating that normal fries are carcinogenic.
The title of your book is Pandora's Potatoes. What led you to choose this title?
CR: During the five years after my departure from Simplot, I realized that I had not been rigorous enough in considering the possibility that my modifications might have caused unintended effects. I then studied the publicly available literature that was relevant to my past work, and identified a number of issues that had been hidden from my view. My GM potatoes had "hidden" issues—like Pandora's Box.
What do you think should be done with these GMO potatoes?
CR: I believe that, for the short term, GM potatoes entering the consumer market should be evaluated for the incidence of hidden bruise and infections and the range in levels of toxins such as alpha-aminoadipate and tyramine.
Do you think the problems you experienced in GMO potatoes will be similar in other GMO plants?
CR: It is my experience that genetic engineers are biased and narrow-minded. They may not be able to critically assess their own creations.
What is your perspective on genetic engineering now after your work with the GMO potato and misgivings about it?
CR: My concern about genetic engineering is that the absence of unintentional effects can never be guaranteed. It may take dozens of years before these effects reveal themselves, and we should be extremely cautious applying the technology.
What is your perspective on CRISPR/gene editing?
CR: The problem with CRISPR is that it changes the function of a gene in all tissues of an organism. This is a very important limitation, because gene changes are mostly "useful" only if implemented in a single tissue.
CRISPR has the same problems as genetic engineering. In my book, I explain that it requires manipulations in tissue culture that cause mutations. These mutations have a negative effect on crop performance and cannot be removed from certain crops including apple and potato.
What do you see as the best alternatives to GMO or conventional mono-cropped potatoes?
CR: Genetic engineering is meant to increase crop uniformity. I believe the opposite approach—to increase crop diversity—will be more effective in increasing the sustainability of farming.
I am most hopeful in the efforts of small companies such as Solynta (A Dutch company that has developed an innovative non-GMO technology for targeted breeding of potatoes). The main benefit of Soylnta's approach is that it breeds potatoes that have a simpler genetic structure than cultivated potatoes—more like that of wild potatoes—so that genetic traits can be combined much more effectively.
- Experts: Non-GMO Certification of GMO-Derived Sweetener Sets a ... ›
- Can Hemp Become a 60 Million Acre Crop and Billion Dollar Industry? ›
With low grain prices and the loss of the soybean exports to China because of a trade war, Iowa's farmers face dark times. But one Iowa farmer sees a light of hope with a crop that fell out of favor, but may be poised for a big comeback. Ethan Vorhes, a farmer in Charles City, Iowa sees great potential for growing industrial hemp.
"It's a perfect storm for revitalization of not only of Iowa, but America," said Vorhes, who is director of the Iowa Hemp Association.
Vorhes refers to language in the 2018 Farm Bill that would allow farmers to grow hemp in the U.S. after it had been banned for nearly 50 years because of its association with its closely related plant, marijuana. He also sees great potential because hemp can be processed into a multitude of products—from natural supplements and foods to fiber for making everything from clothing to high-tech materials.
"I think it would be a really good thing if we brought it to Iowa," said Vorhes who plans to use hemp as feed for his specialty Wagyu beef cows.
Hemp Acreage Increased 163 Percent in 2017
Hemp has been grown in the U.S. since the early 1600s when the first European settlers arrived. It was grown to make fiber for rope, fabric and paper, among other uses. The Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper. The "Hemp for Victory" campaign during World War II encouraged production of the crop for the war effort. But in 1970, the Controlled Substances Act classified hemp as marijuana making it illegal to grow in the U.S.; this despite the fact that hemp has a negligible amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.
Hemp's comeback began in 2014 when a provision in the 2013 Farm Bill defined industrial hemp as distinct from marijuana and allowed universities and state agriculture departments to conduct hemp research programs. This allowed licensed farmers to grow hemp.
In 2017, more than 25,000 acres of hemp were grown in 19 states, a 163 percent increase over 2016. The number of acres "will be greatly expanded this year," said Erica McBride, executive director of the National Hemp Association, who adds that 39 states have passed some form of legislation to allow limited hemp production.
Kentucky Leads the Way
Kentucky has played a central role in hemp's revival. The state's U.S. Senator and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Congressman James Comer have led legislative efforts, such as the 2013 Farm Bill provision, to bring hemp production back.
Kentucky led the U.S. in hemp production until the late 1800s before it was replaced with tobacco. Now with tobacco production falling, Kentucky farmers are considering hemp as an alternative.
John Bell, an organic farmer in Scott County, Kentucky, is licensed to grow hemp. His grandfather grew the crop during the 1940s.
"Hemp has a history of growing in Kentucky. It was grown for fiber everywhere," said Bell, who grows hemp to produce cannabidiol (CBD) oil.
About 70 percent of the hemp grown in the U.S. today is used to make CBD oil, a popular natural remedy for pain, inflammation and anxiety.
Kentucky's three major universities, Western Kentucky, University of Kentucky and Kentucky State all have hemp research projects.
Shawn Lucas, a certified crop adviser and assistant professor of organic agriculture at Kentucky State University, said Kentucky "grabbed the bull by the horns" with hemp production in 2014.
"We pride ourselves in that we got in early," said Lucas who is conducting research on hemp production. "The potential is there. As tobacco production shrinks, hemp could be an option for farmers or a way to diversify their operations."
Lucas said there are now 50 hemp processing facilities in Kentucky when there were none just a few years ago.
One of those processors is Victory Hemp based in Campbellsburg, Kentucky, which manufactures hemp seed oil, hemp protein powder and hemp seeds.
CEO Chad Rosen calls hemp a "superior nutritional product" with essential fatty acids and higher protein than other sources. Hemp is also aligned with the fast-growing plant-based food trend.
Hemp offers advantages to farmers. It has a track record of successful production in the U.S., and can be grown in all 50 states. It doesn't need as much water as cotton, and it doesn't need as many pesticides as corn and soybeans. It crowds out weeds and has a deep root system, which helps aerate the soil. It is also non-GMO and is being grown organically by some farmers.
Lucas said farmer interest in growing hemp is "huge," but cautions: "Anyone getting into it needs to do homework, and needs a market for their crop."
CBD, Food, Fiber and More Uses
Potential markets for hemp are many. CBD oil is now the biggest market followed by hemp foods, including hemp seed, oil and protein.
Nutiva is one of the leading hemp food manufacturers in the U.S. and CEO John Roulac has been one of hemp's leading advocates for nearly 20 years. In 2001, Roulac successfully sued the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to keep hemp-based foods legal in the U.S. Nutiva sells more than a dozen hemp-based products including oil, protein, and seeds, and they have the top-selling brand of hemp oil and seeds in the world.
Most of the hemp Nutiva uses is grown in Canada, but the company recently launched the first certified organic hempseed product grown in the U.S.
Colorado-based Stillwater Foods is making hemp-derived cannabinoid food ingredients. Stillwater CEO Justin Singer predicts big things for such ingredients, which can be used in beverages, functional teas, powdered drink mixes, and health snacks.
"Cannabinoids will become a new category of functional ingredients like probiotics, Omega-3, and flavonoids," he said.
While CBD oil is now the biggest market for hemp, McBride predicts that will change."Moving forward I anticipate that the fiber market will eventually exceed all other markets combined," she said.
Uses for hemp fiber seem endless. It is used to make clothing like t-shirts, socks, jeans, sneakers and hats, as well as wallets, backpacks, American flags and, of course, rope. Several companies use hemp fiber composites to make car door panels for automakers like BMW. It is also used in construction as a building material and insulation. Hemp fiber can also be transformed into high-performance energy storage devices, according to research by Dr. David Mitlin of Clarkson University in New York.
Legalization: a "Game Changing Event"
Success of these markets hinges on Congress allowing hemp to be grown nationwide. Last March, McConnell introduced The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 to legalize hemp as an agricultural commodity and remove it from the list of controlled substances where it is now listed with marijuana. In June, the Senate passed its version of the 2018 Farm Bill with McConnell's hemp legislation. Now the Senate must reconcile its version with the House of Representatives' version. [Note: This process was underway at the time of publishing this article — Aug. 27.]
Hemp supporters are confident that Congress will legalize hemp. "There is strong bipartisan support and very little opposition in the House," said Eric Steenstsra, president of Vote Hemp.
"There are not too many people in the political world that are really opposed to it," Lucas said. "Hemp seems to be something to bring people together."
Momentum for legalizing hemp farming got a big boost recently as California passed a bill that allows the state's farmers to grow industrial hemp and produce hemp seed, oil, fiber, and extract.
Once hemp is legalized nationwide, some supporters see hemp growing into a major crop and industry.
"Once we get federally backed crop insurance there's no reason this shouldn't and won't be on par with both corn and soybeans and grown on 60 million acres a year," Rosen said.
McBride sees hemp becoming a multi-billion dollar industry in the U.S.
"When it is said that hemp can be used to create over 25,000 different products that is not an exaggeration. Once the federal law changes to allow full commercialization there will be large investments into the infrastructure required to build the industry."
Singer said legalization of hemp will be a "game changing event."
"We need to remove the red tape and let farmers plant the seed," Roulac said.
By Ken Roseboro
Consumer advocates and non-GMO food experts have criticized the non-GMO certification of Cargill's EverSweet sweetener by NSF's Non-GMO True North program because the product is derived from a genetically engineered yeast and should be considered a GMO.
Sold by Cargill, EverSweet is described as a "next generation, zero calorie sweetener." It is derived through a fermentation process using a GMO yeast, which produces the compounds Reb M and Reb D similar to those found in a stevia leaf. NSF says the yeast is not in EverSweet.
But Dana Pearls, senior food and technology policy campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said the True North non-GMO verification of EverSweet "sets a dangerous precedent for greenwashing other GMO products."
"All products derived from genetic engineering, including the GMO EverSweet, must be regulated, assessed, and labeled," she said. "Ingredients like EverSweet that are derived from genetic engineering are the new GMOs, and labeling must be honest and transparent."
At Odds With Non-GMO Project Standard
"You can't make a truly non-GMO product using genetic engineering," said Megan Westgate, Non-GMO Project executive director. "A product like EverSweet would not be eligible for verification under the Non-GMO Project Standard because it's produced by genetically engineered yeast."
Cargill claims the GMO yeast is "completely filtered out" of the end product sweetener. This allowed the product to be certified by NSF's Non-GMO True North program, according to NSF spokesperson Lindsay Karpinskas. She said the True North standard includes a range of exemptions for enzymes used as processing aids, which are not present in the finished product. These include vitamins, minerals, non-viable or inactivated microorganisms, and microbial growth media such as the fermentation feedstock used to produce Reb M and Reb D in EverSweet.
"These exemptions allow products derived from microorganisms and enzymes to be certified because genetically engineered ingredients are not present in the finished product," Karpinskas said.
But Westgate says it doesn't matter that the GMO yeast isn't in the finished product. "How can you take a GMO microbe and produce something non-GMO with it? It just doesn't really make sense."
John Fagan, CEO of Health Research Institute, a molecular biologist who has extensive experience developing non-GMO standards worldwide, also said Reb M and Reb D in EverSweet should not be certified as non-GMO.
"Technically, Reb M and Reb D are products of a microorganism that is genetically engineered to produce enzymes that enable the yeast to produce Reb M and Reb D. That yeast was specifically engineered to produce Reb M and Reb D, so the genetic engineering that was done to that organism was not incidental to Reb M and Reb D."
Jim Thomas, program director at the ETC Group, a non-profit advocacy group that tracks new GMO technologies, said it's misleading to describe the GMO yeast used to produce Reb M and Reb D as just a processing aid.
"That's a bit like saying a cow is a processing aid for making milk," Thomas said.
Fagan said there are potential human health concerns with EverSweet. "The issue of safety is a real one. When you put new enzymes into a cell using genetic engineering, this changes the balance of the metabolic network in the cell, resulting in metabolites being present at levels not normally found in the cells. These levels are not something the manufacturer can predict or control, and some of these metabolites may be toxic."
Fagan also sayid contaminants can result when Reb M and Reb D are extracted from the GMO yeast, and that these could be toxic or allergenic.
Loophole Allows Other GMO-Derived Ingredients to Be Non-GMO Certified
The fermentation process used to make compounds like EverSweet is known as synthetic biology and is one of the new genetic engineering technologies that include gene editing. A growing number of companies are using synthetic biology techniques that involve altering the DNA of microorganisms such as yeast, algae and bacteria to produce compounds like flavors, fragrances and ingredients that previously have been extracted from plants. Evolva, which works with Cargill to produce EverSweet, has also created a synthetic biology form of vanillin, an alternative to natural vanilla extract. The ETC Group has compiled a database of some 350 synthetic biology products on the market or in development.
Fagan said NSF's True North standard doesn't address synthetic biology products. "Reb M and Reb D are clearly synbio products, and synbio products are definitely classified as GMO by CODEX and the other authoritative definitions of GMO. Given that True North certified them as non-GMO, it would appear that they may have missed the whole synbio category of GMO products."
Another problem is that while the use of GMO processing aids are exempt from GMO labeling in European regulations and Vermont's GMO labeling law, the True North extends that exemption to include other compounds, said Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union.
"The real issue is that any ingredient or additive that comes from a GMO microorganism is exempt (from the True North standard). This is a very problematical loophole."
As a result, Hansen is concerned that more synthetic biology ingredients could also be non-GMO certified. "So, not only can this genetically engineered stevia (EverSweet) get a True North non-GMO label but the Impossible Burger could also get such a label, since the soy leghemoglobin is produced by GMO yeast. Indeed, you could have a product where all the main ingredients were produced by GMO microorganisms and still get the True North Non-GMO Standard."
NSF's True North and the Non-GMO Project are the two certification programs approved for companies making non-GMO claims on products sold in Whole Foods stores. NSF is also a technical administrator to the Non-GMO Project.
Pearls urges NSF to change its standard. "True North's standards should be updated to include new genetic engineering techniques, following the lead of the Non-GMO Project and the National Organic Standards Board (which in 2016 voted to update U.S. organic standards to exclude ingredients derived from next generation genetic engineering techniques)."
Environmentally-Caused Disease Crisis? Pesticide Damage to DNA Found 'Programmed' Into Future Generations
When Dr. Paul Winchester, a pediatrician, moved to Indiana from Colorado in 2002, he noticed something disturbing—a high number of birth defects.
"I was used to the number of birth defects I should see in a community hospital, and I saw many more in Indiana," said Winchester, who is medical director of the Neonatal and Intensive Care Unit at St. Francis Hospital in Indianapolis.
Winchester decided to investigate the reason for the higher numbers of birth defects. His research zeroed in on the herbicide atrazine, one of the most widely used herbicides in the U.S. and the most commonly detected pesticide in U.S. drinking water.
Winchester and several other researchers including Michael Skinner, professor of biology at Washington State University's Center for Reproductive Biology, conducted a study to see if there was a link between atrazine in drinking water and birth defects.
Studies have found that atrazine is an endocrine disruptor, a substance that can alter the human hormonal system. Atrazine was banned by the European Union because of its persistent groundwater contamination.
In their study, Winchester and his team found that concentrations of atrazine in drinking water were highest in May and June when farmers sprayed their fields with the herbicide. They also found that birth defects peaked during the same months indicating a close correlation.
"We plotted water concentrations and birth defects, and they fit like a hat," Winchester said.
Their study, which was funded by the Gerber Foundation, was published in 2017 on PLOS One.
Epigenetic Changes Programmed Into Future Generations
But the most disturbing finding was that atrazine had epigenetic effects. Epigenetics is the theory that environmental factors, such as diet, lifestyle choices and pesticides can impact the health of people who are exposed to them and also their descendants. Human DNA, according to epigenetics, is not unchangeable; it can be altered by such environmental factors. Epigenetic changes can be imprinted on the DNA of a fetus during pregnancy according to Winchester.
"If it is fixed then, it becomes inheritable and it becomes a trait that you can pass on to the next generation and the next and next."
Epigenetics is a fairly new concept that is slowly gaining acceptance.
"This is a really important concept that is difficult to teach the public, and when I say the public I include my clinical colleagues," Winchester said.
For the atrazine study, Winchester's team used Skinner's advanced technology to detect epigenetic changes—and resulting negative health impacts—over several generations of rats whose mothers were exposed to atrazine.
Common sense would seem to dictate that fewer negative health outcomes would be seen with subsequent generations. But the study found the opposite: There were more abnormalities and diseases in later generations of rats. The first generation of rats whose mother was exposed to atrazine weighed less than a group of control rats. The second generation weighed less but also had incidences of testicular disease and breast cancer. The third generation suffered the most problems, according to Winchester.
"We waited until the third generation, where no direct exposure (to atrazine) occurred, to ask if these epigenetic effects could be inherited, because there is no mechanism, no exposure, no toxicity that could explain a change in disease rates in the third generation. We found that 50 percent of offspring had multiple diseases, emotional and physical problems, hyperactivity, abnormal sperm, and premature puberty."
In an earlier study, Skinner found that the fungicide vinclozolin also caused inheritable diseases in rats. In all, he tested nearly 20 chemicals and found that all produce epigenetic effects, said Winchester.
"The most alarming (finding) to me is that almost every chemical tested including atrazine reduced fertility in the third generation of offspring."
Winchester called the discovery of the link between chemicals like pesticides and epigenetic changes leading to disease "the most important next discovery in all of medicine."
"What we are learning is that virtually every adult disease we have is going to be linked to epigenetic origins as well," he said.
More research needs to be done on the link between epigenetic effects and disease but Winchester says limited funding is available for such research.
"This is a huge thing that is going to change how we understand the origin of disease. But a big part of that is that it will change our interpretation of what chemicals are safe. In medicine I can't give a drug to somebody unless it has gone through a huge amount of testing. But all these chemicals haven't gone through anything like that. We've been experimented on for the last 70 years, and there's not one study on multigenerational effects."
Glyphosate Levels in Mothers Linked to Shorter Pregnancies
Winchester also co-authored a study published recently in Environmental Health that found detectable levels of glyphosate in the urine of 93 percent of a group of pregnant women in Central Indiana. The levels of glyphosate detected correlated with shorter pregnancies.
Again, the study raises concerns of possible epigenetic effects leading to disease in later generations.
"We are the first researchers in the U.S. to report that virtually every pregnant mother has glyphosate in her body at the time that she is creating fetal (epigenetic) imprints in her baby," Winchester said.
Winchester and his team focused on atrazine and glyphosate because they are the most heavily used pesticides in the U.S.
"That's the only reason they were chosen. We looked to see how commonly they are found in pregnant women, and we were mortified."
Winchester has been surprised by the lack of reaction to the glyphosate study.
"A chemical (glyphosate) that didn't come onto the scene until the 1970s has now managed to find its way into every single pregnant woman in the U.S, except seven percent of them. We thought that should be news. But in the current paradigm, which is definitely pro-business, the only thing companies have to prove is that it doesn't kill you if you drink it or take a big dose of it."
He sees a potentially catastrophic outcome resulting from the epigenetic damage caused by pesticides.
"Every one of the chemicals tested so far produces infertility, and the industrial world has reached the lowest level of fertility on record. We are below replacement levels in most industrialized countries including the U.S.This is looking at your own species extinction."
Winchester lays the blame at the feet of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which doesn't consider epigenetic or generational effects of chemicals, and the pesticide and chemical manufacturers like Monsanto.
"They can sell all the Roundup they want, but if it's in me they are going to have to pay for that. Every molecule that I find is on them … What I want to know is: has my fetus had altered DNA imprinting because of this chemical? I have a right to know that. If we are going to have to wait 75 years to find out if my grandchildren are going to be affected by it, I think somebody has to pay. They better put a fund together. I want somebody's head to roll. I don't think that the EPA and Monsanto get to walk away."
Winchester connects an ancient expression to a modern health crisis.
"Even in the Bible, there is the saying, 'the sins of the father are visited upon his offspring.' Well, it turns out that they are."
Some farmers transition to organic production to earn premium prices paid for organic crops. Others switch to make their farms more sustainable. But for some farmers transitioning to organic is a necessity to save their health—and even their lives.
Blaine Schmaltz, who farms in Rugby, North Dakota, is a good example. One day in September 1993, Schmaltz was spraying an herbicide on his field. He stopped to check the level in the sprayer tank. Looking inside, he started to feel lame and then passed out. He was later hospitalized for several months with asthma, muscle aches and pains, and insomnia. A doctor diagnosed him as having "occupational asthma."
"The doctor told me to leave agriculture," Schmaltz said. "He said, 'if you don't you probably won't live 10 years.'"
While recovering, Schmaltz read about organic farming and decided to transition because he wanted to continue farming. The next spring he started the transition, and over time found it was the right choice. His symptoms disappeared.
Schmaltz continues to farm organically, growing wheat, edible beans, flax and other specialty grains.
"I didn't switch to organic farming for the money or a utopian dream," he said. "I did it for myself and my family in order to stay in agriculture."
"Common story for many farmers" ...
Blaine Schmaltz's experience is not uncommon. Other farmers in the U.S. and Canada have switched to organic because of a health crisis they had—or even the death of a family member—due to pesticide exposure.
"It's definitely a common story for many farmers," said Kate Mendenhall, director of the Organic Farmers Association, about farmers wanting to go organic because of concerns with pesticides.
Mendenhall's master's degree thesis at Goddard College involved interviewing farmers worldwide who transitioned to organic, and she found that pesticides were a major concern.
"That was a theme globally," she said. "Farmers had problems with pesticides or were nervous about them and didn't want them around their children. Some had prior health problems from pesticides." A 2017 report by Oregon State University and organic certifier Oregon Tilth, Breaking New Ground: Farmer Perspectives on Organic Transition, found that 86 percent of farmers surveyed said that concerns about health was one of the main motivations for transitioning.
"My husband was slowly being poisoned" ...
Klaas Martens also switched to organic because of bad reactions to pesticides. Martens, who farms in Penn Yan, New York, suffered headaches, nausea, and temporary paralysis of his right arm from exposure to 2,4-D herbicide and other chemicals.
Martens dreaded spraying pesticides. "I knew I would feel rotten for a month after," he said.
His wife, Mary-Howell, would later write: "My husband was slowly being poisoned."
In 1991, the Martens decided to transition to organic because, according to Mary-Howell, they hated what pesticides "might be doing to us, our family, our land, and our environment."
The Martens have been farming organically ever since and operate Lakeview Organic Grain, which supplies organic feed, grains and seeds.
Saskatchewan farmer Gus Zelinski transitioned to organic after being hospitalized for pesticide poisoning. He inhaled the herbicide Buctril-M after it circulated into the air of his tractor cabin while he was spraying his field.
"I couldn't get my breath; I was just about choking," Zelinski said.
He was hospitalized for a week. "The doctor said I was lucky," he said.
His wife Dolores said the incident led Gus to convert the farm to organic.
"We went with organic farming practices and didn't look back. We decided that health was more important than our pocketbook and using chemicals."
She said other farmers in their area weren't as fortunate as Gus.
"There are a few farmers in our area who have passed on because of chemicals. But that's not spoken about in farming communities."
According to Dag Falck, organic program manager at Nature's Path Foods, stories like Gus Zelinski's are common.
"I can't tell you how many times I heard that in my (organic) inspection career. There were lots of stories about older farmers getting seriously ill or prematurely dying (due to pesticide-related illnesses)," he said.
"I didn't want my kids exposed to the chemicals" ...
In some cases, farmers switched to organic after their fathers experienced health problems from pesticide exposure. Tim Raile, who is transitioning his 8500-acre farm in St. Francis, Kansas to organic, said his father had used pesticides such as 2,4-D and malathion. He died of chronic leukemia at age 77 when others in his family had lived longer.
"I really believe that's one reason his life was shortened," Raile said. "He was not that careful (handling pesticides) and was told they were safe back in the 1960s and 1970s."
Raile isn't surprised that farmers have switched to organic because of concerns with pesticides.
"It's quite common, and was a consideration for me, for sure. I've tried to protect myself using protective clothing, but inevitably you get sprayed and eventually it will cause problems," he said.
Levi Lyle is transitioning his family's farm in Keota, Iowa to organic, and his father's cancer was a deciding factor.
"My passion for organic farming was inspired by my dad overcoming cancer," Levi said in an interview with Iowa Farmer Today.
In the early 1980s, Levi's father Trent developed stage 4 lung cancer as well as groin cancer.
"He always wondered where the cancer came from," Levi said. "There's much we know about toxicity we add to our fields and so much we don't know."
Fortunately, Trent overcame his illness and still farms.
Glen Kadelbach's father wasn't as lucky. He died of cancer in 2008, and Glen decided to transition the family's farm in Hutchinson, Minnesota to organic shortly after his father's death.
"My dad had gotten splashed with Lasso herbicide 20 years before and he was told he would eventually get cancer. He had prostate cancer and that turned to bone cancer," Kadelbach said.
While Glen can't be completely sure the pesticide exposure caused his father's cancer, he said it was reason enough for him to go organic.
"I didn't want my kids exposed to the chemicals," he said.
"Public health trainwreck" ...
Herbicides were cited as the cause of health problems for farmers like Blaine Schmaltz, Klaas Martens and Gus Zelinski. What's worse is that herbicide-related health problems are likely to increase for farmers and even the public, according to Charles Benbrook, visiting scholar at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University. This is because the amount of herbicides being used is accelerating due to weeds becoming resistant to glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide. Encouraged by companies like Monsanto and Dow, farmers are escalating the war on weeds by using older, more toxic herbicides such as dicamba and 2,4-D to kill glyphosate-resistant weeds.
"The concern is the amount of herbicides used in the next five to ten years is going to constitute the largest increase in U.S. history," Benbrook said.
Such an increase of herbicide use demands attention by public health agencies and regulators but Benbrook said there is no effort to study human health impacts of the chemicals.
"Herbicides are going to pose a greater risk to human health," he said. "This is a public health trainwreck that no one has the tools, the motivation, or the ability to turn around. The end game will be very costly."
The solution for established farmers like Blaine Schmaltz, Klaas Martens, and Gus Zelinski and for younger farmers like Tim Raile, Levi Lyle, and Glen Kadelbach is to transition to organic.
"I am so anxious to get rid of the chemicals. I haven't looked back," Raile said.
"If I can reduce herbicide use by 20 percent, then reduce another 20 percent, in a few years I hope to eliminate it all. It's a clear path for me," Levi Lyle said.
Without the pesticides, Mary-Howell Martens said, "The farm is a safe place."
An executive from a company selling a genetically engineered meat alternative faced tough questions at the Sustainable Foods Summit held in San Francisco at the end of January.
Nick Halla, chief strategy officer of Impossible Foods, gave a presentation about his company's Impossible Burger as a sustainable solution to the problems of industrial meat production. He claimed their lab-created burger uses about 74 percent less water, generates about 87 percent fewer greenhouse gases and requires around 95 percent less land than conventional ground beef from cows. Halla said the Impossible Burger is seeing rapid acceptance in the marketplace, sold in many restaurants and "better burger" chains.
Doubts About Impossible Burger's Safety
But Halla's PowerPoint slides didn't mention that the Impossible Burger's key ingredient is a genetically engineered protein called soy leghemoglobin or "heme." The presentation also didn't mention that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration told Impossible Foods that the company hadn't demonstrated the safety of heme after it applied to the FDA seeking GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status. Despite FDA's concerns, Impossible Foods sold its GMO-derived burger for public consumption anyway.
FDA Questions Safety of Impossible Burger’s Key GMO Ingredient https://t.co/d5dtFDFBdh @TrueFoodNow @GMOTruth— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1503539705.0
Several audience members took Halla to task over Impossible Foods marketing its burger despite FDA concerns, short-term feeding studies, and lack of transparency about the use of the GMO ingredient.
Mark Squire, owner and manager of Good Earth Natural Foods, said he read the FDA documents about Impossible Foods application for GRAS status and was "shocked that a company could come out with a new food additive and not have it subjected to government and long-term scrutiny."
Pamm Larry, director of GMO-free California, asked Halla why his company had conducted such short, 14- and 28-day rat feeding studies of the product.
"Why did you do such short feeding studies when you know the minimum industry standard is 90 days?"
Ken Ross, board member of the ProTerra Foundation and a speaker at the conference, also said that the feeding studies are unacceptable.
"A 28-day feeding study is not impeccable science. You need a two-year feeding study," he said.
Lack of Transparency, Product Rushed to Market
Larry said she spoke to several restaurants that serve the Impossible Burger but didn't know it was GMO. She also asked if Impossible Foods labels their product as GMO. Halla said his company doesn't label the product as GMO but that information about the use of genetic engineering is on the company's website.
Nick Halla, chief strategy officer of Impossible Foods, faced some tough questions recently at the Sustainable Foods Summit.
Squire said Impossible Foods was not being transparent. "I don't think people selling burgers understand (Impossible Foods') technology. There is no transparency; there is a huge information gap. Halla said 'everything is on our website.' But if you go to their website, there is very little there."
Ross thought that Impossible Foods rushed the Impossible Burger to market due to pressure from investors.
"They call the shots and want to get the product commercialized and into the market and so they aren't doing a 2-year feeding study and doing superficial short studies instead."
Ross told Halla that—with its questionable feeding studies and lack of transparency—Impossible Foods is repeating the same deceptions that the biotech industry has done in the past.
"You're speaking to an audience that has already been down that road," he said.
Halla seemed surprised by the tough questions.
"He was clearly chastened by the reaction. I don't think he thought he was coming into a hostile environment," Ross said.
Amarjit Sahota, president and owner of Ecovia Intelligence, organizer of the Summit, acknowledged that Halla "received a lot of criticism after his seminar."
"We believe the feedback and criticism Impossible Foods received will make them think twice about making claims in the future and make them more transparent about their ingredients," Sahota said.
Editor's Note: I sent an email to Impossible Foods asking if Nick Halla could tell me his responses to the audience's questions during the summit. I wanted to get his perspective. My email was answered by Rachel Konrad, Impossible Foods chief communications officer, who did not attend the summit.
In response to my question about Halla's PowerPoint slides not mentioning Impossible Foods' use of genetic engineering, Konrad wrote: "Nick talked specifically about the use of engineered yeast during his presentation." Still, "genetic engineering" was not mentioned in any of his slides.
Regarding the short-term animal feeding study, Konrad wrote: "Our rat-feeding study was comprehensive and statistically valid; a panel of experts reviewed the study and unanimously agreed that soy leghemoglobin is safe."
When asked about how employees at the burger restaurants don't know that the Impossible Burger is genetically engineered, Konrad wrote that her company provides training sessions for chefs and kitchen staff: "In these sessions, we explain the ingredients—including how we produce heme through fermentation of a genetically modified yeast."
Herbicide drift has been a major problem last year damaging millions of acres of crops in the U.S.
An organic farmer in Missouri has seen firsthand how destructive herbicide drift can be as it destroys his crops and threatens his livelihood and farm.
Mike Brabo and his wife Carol own Vesterbrook Farm in Clarksville, Missouri, about an hour north of St. Louis near the Mississippi River. The farm has been in Carol's family for nearly a century. The couple and their two children have worked the farm since 2008 after Mike survived thyroid cancer.
At that time Mike gained an appreciation for organic foods but found it difficult to afford them. "It's expensive to buy organic fruits and vegetables at Whole Foods," he said.
Mike and Carol decided to grow their own. It wasn't difficult to convert the farm to organic since no chemicals had been used on the land.
"There had been nothing grown on the farm but grass for 15 years," Mike said.
Mike Brabo and his wife Carol (center) and children Bethany (left) and Josh (right).Vesterbrook Farm
Sell Crops to 150-Member CSA
Over the years, the Brabos have grown their organic farm. A lot of vegetables can be grown on 24 acres, and the Brabos have planted more than 60 including lettuce, spinach, beets, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, peppers, squash and tomatoes, among others. Some vegetables are grown in four high tunnel greenhouses. They also planted an orchard with apple, peach, plum and cherry trees and fruit bushes such as raspberries. They also grow herbs such as sage, parsley and cilantro.
They sell the fruits of their labor to 150 members of their community supported agriculture (CSA) program. Ironically, some of the CSA members are employees of a large, well-known multi-national agribusiness company in St. Louis.
Mike says his customers appreciate getting fresh organic produce. "Some people have a tough time finding organic food. There are not a lot of organic farms in our area."
Vesterbrook Farm uses organic practices but is not certified through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program. Instead, Mike chose Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) as their certifier.
"Their standards meet or exceed the USDA's," he said. "CNG has a much greater emphasis on sustainability with planting areas that bring in wildlife and beneficial insects."
The Brabos have seen growing success with their organic farm and CSA with sales increasing 10 percent per year.
Herbicides Damaged Crops, Loss of $300,000
That is until this year. In June, a conventional farmer neighbor sprayed his soybean field with herbicides. Wind blew the herbicides over the Brabos' land.
This happened despite Mike having signs that say "Organic Farm, No Spray" signs and registering his farm with DriftWatch, a communication tool that enables farmers and pesticide applicators to work together to protect specialty crops using mapping programs.
The damage from the herbicide drift was total. "We found damage across our farm, which is 500 yards wide, including on the far north side of the property," Mike said.
Crops damaged included peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, basil; fruit trees were also damaged. "Everything on the farm, even ornamental trees, was damaged," Mike said.
The herbicides also killed half of the farm's bees, an estimated loss of $12,000. Mike estimates the total loss at $300,000.
Tests revealed that the herbicides responsible for the damage were glufosinate, clethodim and metolachlor.
Their Certified Naturally Grown certification was suspended, and the Brabos must essentially start over to remove the herbicide contamination from their farm. It will take three years at an estimated cost of $1.6 million to remediate the damage and regain CNG certification. According to Mike, they will have to plant cover crops and replenish the soil with beneficial bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi.
"Worst Case Scenario is We Lose the Farm"
Mike could grow vegetables and sell them as conventional but he refuses for fear that a customer would become sick because of the herbicide contamination.
"As a cancer survivor I'm not going to be complicit in putting something in the food supply that could make someone sick," he said.
For now, the Brabos are out of business for three years. "We aren't sure what we are going to do," Mike said. "The worst case scenario is we lose the family farm."
The Brabos are working with attorneys to reach a settlement with their neighbor's insurance company.
"We just want to be rightly compensated to grow healthy food for ourselves and repairing the soil and ecosystem so we can grow food for the St. Louis community," Mike said.
"This whole drift issue is so huge. How many farmers and vegetable growers have chemically drifted vegetables?" Mike said.
To help Vesterbrook Farm recover from its devastating losses, go to YouCaring.
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About 10 years ago, Monsanto's genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, rBST or rBGH, was in trouble. Leading dairy processors and major supermarket chains, such as Wal-Mart, Costco, Kroger and Safeway were banning the use of rBST in dairy production. Monsanto had big plans for rBST, which is injected into cows to increase milk production. But consumers didn't like the idea of consuming milk, one of the the most wholesome foods, with GMO hormones. As a result, dairy products labeled "rBST-free" became common.
To counter consumer opposition, a Monsanto PR firm launched a "grassroots advocacy group" with a slick website called "American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology" (AFACT). The aim was to defend farmers' use of rBST and "educate" the public about it.
AFACT failed miserably—that's a fact. It's long gone along with its website—like it never existed. Monsanto ended up selling off rBST to Elanco, which also recently sold it, and today, "rBST-free" is a dairy industry standard.
AFACT's failure reminds me of a new campaign called "Peel Back the Label," which claims to be a campaign of "America's dairy farmers"—or is it the creation of another PR firm? PBTL, which isn't nearly as catchy an acronym as AFACT, aims to rally consumers to fight "deceptive food labeling," particularly non-GMO claims. Consumers are encouraged to take action and share their own examples of misleading non-GMO labels.
AFACT and PBTL are classic examples of the types of front groups and campaigns described in the excellent book, Trust Us We're the Experts, by John Stauber, founder of the Center for Media and Democracy and PR Watch. To get their message across more effectively, corporations or organizations will create "independent" organizations to further their agenda. The aim being to convince the public that an "expert" third-party organization says, for example, that rBST is good for dairy farmers and consumers. The tobacco industry is notorious for funding such front groups as the "Center for Consumer Freedom" to defend the rights of consumers to smoke as they pleased. In this case, PBTL's aim is to convince people that non-GMO labels are misleading and capitalizing on consumer fears.
One of PBTL's targets is Dannon and their Non-GMO Project Verified yogurts. PBTL says Dannon's decision to go non-GMO is "deceptive, fear-based marketing that is confusing to consumers and damaging to the environment."
The reality is that Dannon and other companies are selling non-GMO products because people want them. According to the Hartman Group's 2017 Health & Wellness Study, more than half of Americans are looking for non-GMO food and beverages. According to a 2017 survey by the food industry-supported International Food Information Council, more than a quarter of consumers are choosing foods because they have non-GMO labels. A more recent survey by international market research firm GfK found that nearly half of consumers, 48 percent, report that "free from GMO ingredients" along with "low sugar or sugar-free" are the important factors when deciding which food or beverage product to eat or drink.
The fact is that more and more people want "clean" labeled foods with simpler and fewer ingredients and non-GMO is part of that trend.
Peel Back the Label and whoever is behind it are fighting that trend; they want to continue keeping consumers in the dark and don't want them to know that the majority of dairy cows are fed GMO grains like corn and soybeans. They are losing, and Peel Back the Label is bound to fail as AFACT did 10 years ago.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told the manufacturer of the meat-like Impossible Burger that the company hadn't demonstrated the safety of the product's key genetically engineered ingredient, according to internal FDA documents. Despite FDA's concerns, Impossible Foods put its GMO-derived burger on the market for public consumption.
GMO Ingredient Gives Product Meat-Like Taste and Red Blood-Like Color
The Impossible Burger is made using a genetically engineered form of a protein called soy leghemoglobin (SLH) or "heme" that is found in the root nodules of soybean plants. Impossible Foods adds a SLH gene to a yeast strain, which is then grown in vats using a fermentation process. The SLH or heme is then isolated from the yeast and added to the Impossible Burger. Heme gives the Impossible Burger its meat-like taste and red blood-like color.
Impossible Foods claims its product "uses about 75 percent less water, generates about 87 percent fewer greenhouse gases and requires around 95 percent less land than conventional ground beef from cows. It's produced without hormones, antibiotics, cholesterol or artificial flavors."
The GMO-derived Impossible Burger is sold in 43 restaurants nationwide, including several burger chains, and Impossible Foods has attracted significant funding from investors such as Bill Gates.
FDA: Arguments "Do Not Establish Safety of SLH for Consumption"
According to documents obtained by ETC Group and Friends of the Earth U.S. through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Impossible Foods submitted an application to seek GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status for SLH from the FDA in 2014. The FDA's 1997 GRAS notification policy allows a manufacturer, like Impossible Foods, to decide for itself, without FDA input, whether or not a product is safe.
But the FDA warned Impossible Foods that SLH would not meet the basic GRAS status. The FOIA-produced documents state that the "FDA believes that the arguments presented, individually and collectively do not establish the safety of SLH for consumption, nor do they point to a general recognition of safety."
According to Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, Impossible Foods claimed that the engineered SLH/heme was identical to the SLH that has been in the food supply but the company had no safety testing data to back that claim.
"You are taking something that has never been in the food supply before and you come to the FDA, say it is GRAS, and you have no safety data, particularly from feeding studies," Hansen said. "Their argument has literally come down to saying this is exactly identical to the heme we've always been eating, but it's not true."
In discussion with FDA, Impossible Foods also admitted that up to a quarter of its heme ingredient was composed of 46 "unexpected" additional proteins, some of which are unidentified and none of which were assessed for safety in the dossier.
"It's only 73 percent pure, the other 27 percent is from proteins from the genetically engineered yeast that produces it, and these have an unknown function," Hansen said.
According to the FOIA documents, Impossible Foods withdrew its GRAS application in November of 2015.
Despite the FDA's warnings, Impossible Foods went ahead and started selling the Impossible Burger in 2016.
"The FDA told Impossible Foods that its burger was not going to meet government safety standards, and the company admitted it didn't know all of its constituents. Yet it sold it anyway to thousands of unwitting consumers. Responsible food companies don't treat customers this way," said Jim Thomas of ETC Group. "Impossible Foods should pull the burgers from the market unless and until safety can be established by the FDA and apologize to those whose safety it may have risked."
David Bronner: "Totally Unethical to Market and Feed an Untested Protein"
A recent New York Times article by Stephanie Strom brought the controversy over the Impossible Burger to light.
In response to the article, Impossible Foods issued a press release attesting to the safety of its product. The company said that "a panel of food safety and allergy experts at three universities unanimously reaffirmed last week that soy leghemoglobin is generally recognized as safe."
Impossible Foods also said it will voluntarily provide the results of a study feeding rats SLH and "additional data to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration."
Yet, Impossible Foods is submitting feeding study results to the FDA after the product has been on the market for a year.
"It's very troubling that Impossible Foods has put this product on the market and, more than one year later, still has not submitted requested safety data, including a rat feeding study, to FDA," Hansen said.
David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps and plant-based foods advocate, had earlier expressed support for the Impossible Burger as a solution to environmental problems caused by industrial meat production. But the recent revelations have changed Bronner's opinion.
"While there is great potential good that the Impossible Burger could do, it's totally unethical to market and feed an untested protein to people and claim that it is identical to what we already eat," he said.
Major Loopholes in FDA Food Safety Regulations
The fact that companies like Impossible Foods can request GRAS status, then withdraw the application when the FDA raises concerns, and yet still put a product on the market shows major loopholes in FDA food safety regulations, according to Hansen.
"The GRAS process is so broken. It's perfectly legal for a company to say whatever compound they want to use is determined to be safe, and then put it in the food supply, and not even tell the FDA."
Another major loophole is that, while FDA conducts reviews of genetically engineered plants and animals, the agency doesn't review products made using genetically engineered microorganisms like the Impossible Burger's heme.
"The FDA doesn't even request safety data," Hansen said.
Hansen believes the GMO heme should be regulated as a color additive because Impossible Foods promotes heme's ability to give the burger a blood-red color like meat. The FDA requires safety assessments of color additives.
"If it affects color and marketability, it meets the definition of a color additive and should be regulated as such," he said.
Twenty years ago, proponents of genetic engineering promised that GMO foods would increase yields, reduce pesticides, produce nutritious foods and help feed the world. Today, those promises have fallen far short as the majority of GMO crops are engineered to withstand sprays of Roundup herbicide, which is increasingly documented as a risk to human health.
Now, new genetic engineering technologies such as synthetic biology and gene editing are being hailed with the same promises of revolutionizing food production, medicine, fuels, textiles and other areas.
But a closer look at this next generation or "GMOs 2.0" technologies reveals possibly even greater risks than existing GMO technology with possible human health risks and negative impacts on farming communities worldwide, among other unintended consequences. And while products developed using current genetic engineering methods are regulated by the U.S. government, GMOs 2.0 products are entering the market with few or no regulations.
Synthetic Biology: Extreme Genetic Engineering
While traditional genetic engineering involves inserting genes from one species into another, GMOs 2.0 technologies like synthetic biology aim to create life from scratch with computer-synthesized DNA.
"Genetic engineering has moved on from the first generation GMO crops," said Jim Thomas, program director at the ETC Group, a non-profit advocacy group that tracks the new GMO technologies. "There are different ways to genetically engineer an organism by creating synthetic DNA or editing DNA."
The ETC Group describes synthetic biology or "extreme genetic engineering" as "the design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems that do not exist in the natural world and also the redesigning of existing biological systems to perform specific tasks."
"Synthetic biology is about synthesizing genetic sequences, designing them increasingly from scratch as if they were parts to put together in a particular way to get a predicted outcome," Thomas said.
The synthetic biology process involves altering the DNA of microorganisms such as algae, bacteria and yeast so they produce compounds like flavors and fragrances that previously have been extracted from plants. Scientists and software engineers are altering the DNA of existing microorganisms and designing new ones.
Synthetic biology companies are producing a wide range of compounds for food, pharmaceutical, fuel and industrial use. Evolva has created a synthetic biology form of vanillin, an alternative to natural vanilla extract. Perfect Day has engineered yeast cells to produce proteins similar to those found in cow's milk with the aim of producing vegan milk. Impossible Foods engineered heme, a molecule that makes meat sizzle and look pink for the company's meatless Impossible Burger. According to the ETC Group, there are some 350 synthetic biology products on the market or in development.
The claimed benefits of synthetic biology products such as flavors and fragrances are that they can be produced in greater and more consistent quantities and at lower prices than crop-based plant materials that are subject to climate conditions, crop failures and transportation logistics.
CRISPR Gene Editing
Another GMOs 2.0 technology is a gene editing method called CRISPR. This enables scientists to edit parts of the genome by removing, adding or altering sections of the DNA. The aim is to activate or deactivate genes to produce a desired effect. Proponents say CRISPR has the potential to treat illnesses that have a genetic basis such as cancer, sickle cell anemia, hepatitis B or high cholesterol.
GMO seed companies are using CRISPR to develop new plant varieties. Cibus used the technique to develop an herbicide tolerant canola. Pioneer Hi-Bred is developing waxy corn hybrids with high starch content for food and non-food uses. Monsanto recently announced it was licensing the CRISPR technology to develop new seed varieties.
Proponents say CRISPR is "the simplest, most versatile and precise method of genetic manipulation."
"It's a lot more precise in that it targets a specific gene in the genome where it exists while genetic engineering involves inserting a gene at random in the genome, which could disrupt the functioning of other genes," said Jim Orf, professor emeritus, plant breeding and genetics at the University of Minnesota.
But Thomas said scientists are seeing unintended effects using CRISPR. In fact he said "some scientists are intentionally not using CRISPR because of off-target effects." Orf also admitted that the technology is not "100 percent foolproof." Dr. J. Keith Joung of Massachusetts General Hospital said there is growing evidence that CRISPR might alter regions of the genome other than the intended ones.
Causing unintended consequences is one of the problems with current genetic engineering methods, and these could be even worse with GMOs 2.0 technologies, particularly synthetic biology.
"You're not just adding one gene with all the implications of that. Here you are dealing with stretches of DNA that are invented on a computer. The level of novelty and the depth of intervention are much more significant."
Synthetic biology techniques could create secondary metabolites or molecules or different levels of compounds that could have negative impacts.
An underlying problem with the techniques is that they are based on an outdated premise of how biology and nature function.
"One of the dangers with synthetic biology is that it pretends that life is a linear, predictable system that you can engineer as if you can re-engineer a car or computer and that DNA is just a code," Thomas said, "But all those metaphors are falling apart in the biological sciences."
There are also social concerns. Companies like Evolva that make synthetic biology flavors like vanillin are hurting the market for natural vanilla produced by farming communities in Madagascar.
"These companies are trying to disrupt those markets and take that value," Thomas said. "If you can produce vanillin, then you will start affecting the supply chains and livelihoods of vanilla farmers."
Natural and Non-GMO Claims
Another problem is that some synthetic biology and gene editing companies are claiming that their products are natural or even non-GMO. Cibus calls its gene-edited canola "non-transgenic." Synthetic biology companies say that even though the production organism they create is a GMO, they claim the final ingredient is non-GMO.
"They'll argue that the (GMO) production organism is a just a processing aid," Thomas said. "That's a bit like saying a cow is a processing aid for making milk."
The Non-GMO Project also disagrees.
"There is a growing attempt on the part of biotechnology companies to claim that new types of genetic engineering, such as gene editing and synthetic biology, are not actually genetic engineering," said Megan Westgate, executive director of The Non-GMO Project. "To bring clarity in the face of this misleading trend, the Non-GMO Project has explicitly included these technologies in our Standard and cannot be used in a Non-GMO Project Verified product."
On the organic side, the National Organic Standards Board has proposed redefining genetic engineering in the National Organic Program to include GMOs 2.0 technologies, but the new definition hasn't yet been formally adopted.
There is virtually no regulation of GMOs 2.0 techniques in the U.S. The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't consider gene-edited crops such as Cibus's canola and Pioneer's waxy corn as falling under the agency's regulations for genetically engineered crops.
But Orf said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is deciding how GMOs 2.0 crops should be regulated. "They're reviewing their process to see if these crops should be regulated on a case-by-case basis or in a general way. These are different technologies doing things in a different way than transgenics."
Synthetic biology manufacturers are claiming their products such as vanillin are the same as the natural compounds and consider them to be "generally recognized as safe" or GRAS.
"Some companies are going to the Food and Drug Administration and saying 'we would like this to be GRAS' and the FDA is doing that," Thomas said.
Can GMOs 2.0 products be tested to detect their presence as current GMOs are?
"At this point, they are not developed, but they are developable," Thomas said.
"The companies will say their products can't be tested because they are the same as natural compounds. But if you talk with testing labs, they say they could develop a test. It is inevitable that tests will be developed because you have certifiers like the Non-GMO Project saying you can't use synthetic biology products."